Keep Your Pet Healthy in 2020 Keep Your Pet Healthy in 2020

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Two Ways to Help Prevent the Feline Diabetes Epidemic

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker Fact Checked

how to prevent feline diabetes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Feline diabetes, a terrible and all-too-common disease these days, is almost always preventable
  • Research indicates that dry food increases the risk of diabetes in cats, including those who are a normal weight
  • Cats — especially diabetic cats — should not be fed kibble; calories from carbs should comprise less than 10% of total daily calories
  • With patience and persistence, almost any kibble-addicted cat can be transitioned to a high-quality canned food or raw diet
  • To help reduce the risk of feline diabetes, it’s important to limit the number of vaccines and corticosteroids your cat receives, keep him lean, curb greedy eating behavior, and provide safe access to the outdoors if possible

Tragically, far too many cats have diabetes today. They weren't born with this terrible disease, nor did it occur out of the blue. In my experience, the vast majority of midlife or later cases of type 2 diabetes in cats are a direct result of lifestyles that have included, among other precipitating factors, a high-carbohydrate diet (kibble), and lack of exercise.

"The two best things any cat parent can help do to protect from diabetes," writes veterinarian Dr. Tara Koble of The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital, in Boise, Idaho, "would be to feed the highest quality canned, low-carb or raw diet that is possible."

"The second critical thing to help prevent diabetes," continues Koble, "is to get your cat moving. Exercise is protective against diabetes, and indoor only cats are usually lacking severely in activity."1

It's important to note that the right diet and adequate exercise are steps you can take to prevent diabetes in your cat. Once the disease takes hold, however, many kitties require insulin in addition to diet and lifestyle adjustments.

Research Shows Even Normal Weight Cats Fed Kibble Are at Increased Risk for Diabetes

According to the medical website Diabetes.co.uk, "Feeding cats dry food could increase feline diabetes risk".2 This is almost accurate. My experience treating hundreds of cats over the years tells me there's no "could" about it. Kibble absolutely, unequivocally increases your cat's risk of developing diabetes.

The article at Diabetes.co.uk reports on a Swedish study of around 6,700 cats, 1,369 of which had diabetes. The cats' guardians completed an online survey involving dozens of questions about their pet's breed, age, sex, spay/neuter status, general health, body size, exercise habits, behavior, medications, and diet.3

Based on the owners' answers regarding diet, the cats were divided into three groups: cats who were fed dry food, cats fed wet food, and cats fed a combination of dry and wet. The kitties' body types were also categorized as underweight, normal weight, or overweight. According to lead researcher and veterinarian Dr. Malin Ohlund:

"Through our research we found that while obesity is a very important and prominent risk factor for diabetes mellitus in cats, there is also an increased risk of diabetes among normal-weight cats consuming a dry food diet.

This correlation, compared to normal-weight cats on a wet food diet, is a new and interesting finding that warrants further research, as a dry food diet is commonly fed to cats around the world."4

These study results don't represent "new and interesting findings" in my world. The link between kibble and diabetes in cats is old news to those of us who are knowledgeable about animal nutrition and take a proactive approach to helping pets avoid illness and disease.

Why Diabetic Cats Should Never Be Fed a High-Carb Diet

While we don't yet know all the causes of diabetes in kitties, we do know that many diabetic cats improve significantly once they're transitioned to a low-carbohydrate diet. Many stop needing insulin altogether; others require much less than when first diagnosed.

Unfortunately, many veterinarians recommend wholly inappropriate prescription diets for diabetic cats. As cat nutrition expert Dr. Lisa Pierson points out, these diets "… are expensive, low in quality, contain species-inappropriate ingredients and are not necessarily low in carbohydrates."5

"Feeding a high-carbohydrate diet to a diabetic cat is analogous to pouring gasoline on a fire and wondering why you can't put the fire out," says Dr. Pierson.

"While some cats are more sensitive to the detrimental effects of carbohydrates than others, the bottom line is that cats are obligate carnivores and are not designed by nature to consume a high-carbohydrate diet or one that is water-depleted (dry kibble)."

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Calculating Carbs in Your Cat's Diet

There are two general guidelines for selecting the best diet for cats with diabetes, and to prevent the disease in a healthy cat:

  • Avoid dry food (kibble), including treats
  • Calories from carbohydrates should be less than 10 percent of the total calories consumed each day

The carbohydrate content of commercial cat food won't be found on the package label. Pet food companies don't want to reveal this info because they recognize nutrition-savvy pet parents would be stunned to learn just how much cheap, unnecessary filler (starch) is added to pet foods to keep costs low.

However, calculating the approximate amount of carbs in a dry diet is easy to do. Just add up the percent of protein, fat, fiber, moisture and ash (estimate 6% if it's not listed) and subtract the total from 100. As an example, let's take a look at the guaranteed analysis for Blue Buffalo's BLUE Freedom® Grain-Free Indoor Chicken Recipe for adult cats:6

  • Crude protein = 32%
  • Crude fat = 14%
  • Crude fiber = 7%
  • Moisture = 9%
  • Ash = N/A

Now let's plug those numbers into our formula:

100 – 32 – 14 – 7 – 9 – 6 = 32% carbohydrates

That's three times the amount of carbs (aka sugar) a cat should be eating each day. It's very important to understand many grain-free dry foods have a higher carb (starch) content than regular dry cat food, and you can't count on the pet food manufacturer to disclose this fact.

What to Do About a Kibble-Addicted Kitty

The ideal nutrition for cats is whole, fresh and unprocessed animal meat, organs and bones, with a small amount of vegetables. Unfortunately, the majority of middle-aged and senior kitties with diabetes are completely addicted to processed pet food, usually kibble.

Despite what many cat guardians believe, it's possible to transition almost any kitty from kibble to a high-quality canned food and/or raw diet with patience and persistence. It can take weeks and even months, in some cases, to make the full transition.

For step-by-step guidelines on how to get it done, see my two-part video/article series "How to Win the Healthy Food Battle with Your Fussy Feline," part 1 and part 2.

Some diabetic cats are always hungry, which works in your favor when transitioning to a better diet. Others don't have much appetite, and it can feel like mission impossible to convince a finicky cat who feels lousy to sample a new type of food.

I recommend sticking with it as long as your cat is eating well each day. If she absolutely must have kibble or she won't eat, transition to an ultra-low carb freeze-dried food first, then try to add as much grain-free, potato-free and low-carb canned food to her dry diet as she'll tolerate.

5 More Steps That Can Dramatically Reduce Your Cat's Diabetes Risk

In addition to transitioning your cat away from kibble to a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, there are five additional steps you can take to minimize the risk your fuzzy family member will develop diabetes:

1. Don't over-vaccinate — See my recommendations for vaccinating your cat.

2. Keep your cat on the lean side — Obesity is hands down the biggest cause of feline diabetes. As I've noted above, the majority of cats in the U.S. are fed a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet loaded with grains they have no need for, such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, millet or quinoa.

Grain-free dry foods also contribute to obesity and diabetes, because they are calorie-dense and contain high glycemic potatoes, chickpeas, peas or tapioca, which require a substantial insulin release from the body.

All the carbs (starches) in your cat's food — which can be as much as 80% of the contents — break down into sugar. Excess sugar can trigger diabetes. Evaluate a huge hidden sugar culprit: treats.

3. If possible, give your cat safe access to the outdoors in nice weather — You can teach kitty to take walks with you on a harness and leash, or you can build or buy a safe outdoor enclosure.

4. Curb greedy eating behavior — If your cat gobbles up every meal, see these tips for putting the brakes on greedy eating.

5. Don't allow your cat to receive unnecessary steroid therapy — There are a number of synthetically produced corticosteroids (also called glucocorticoids), including prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and betamethasone.

On the positive side, these drugs are extremely effective at treating a wide range of symptoms (not the root cause of the problem), from itchy skin to the painful and debilitating inflammation associated with serious diseases like cancer.

But the downside of synthetic steroid hormones is they have a very long list of side effects, some of which can, over time, create more serious health problems than the problem they were prescribed to treat.

Pets receiving steroids most often have an inflammatory condition (conditions that often end in '–itis'), including dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine), and colitis (inflammation of the colon).

A cat with a GI tract disorder falling into the general category of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is often prescribed steroids, as are kitties with allergies, inflamed gums or eyes, and asthma or another upper respiratory condition.

If your cat has a health challenge, the goal should be to identify and treat the root cause while relieving symptoms with nontoxic therapies. Natural alternatives to corticosteroids exist, but unfortunately, only certain holistic and integrative veterinarians are familiar with them.

For example, I use plant-derived sterols and sterolins instead of synthetic steroid hormones. When I'm dealing with inflammatory conditions, I also use proteolytic enzymes, homeopathics, Chinese herbs, and acupuncture.

If your kitty has allergies, as so many pets these days do, I strongly encourage you to try to determine the allergic triggers. Is it her diet? Are there GMOs in her food? Is it a toxin in her environment, perhaps a household cleaner? If her skin is red and itchy, what's causing it?

Under certain circumstances, but much less often than the current trend of overuse, steroid therapy for a pet is necessary and advisable, for example, in cases of acute head trauma or immune-mediated diseases. But regardless of why the drug is being given, it's important to ensure your cat isn't receiving steroid treatment for extended periods of time, or repeatedly, or for symptoms of an unknown underlying condition.